Let’s start with what our guest today, investigative reporter Maria Perez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel calls, “a simple truth” gathered from dozens of farmworkers over years of reporting on the leading industry of Wisconsin: “Without the work of Latino immigrants — many, if not most, of them undocumented — the signature industry in America’s Dairyland would collapse.”
Add to that a relatively simple collection of facts: “Beginning in 2004, the state increased its annual milk production every year, and beginning in 2009, it annually set records — streaks that continue to this day [and] all of that increased production required new workers.”
The labor shortage in the Wisconsin dairy industry helps explain why – in the midst of a Trump Administration rabidly intent on closing America’s doors to foreigners – Wisconsin’s importation of migrant labor has only grown.
And not only have more and more migrants come to work on Wisconsin farms, they have been, by national standards, left alone to do their work. ICE raids in Dairyland have been few and far between despite strong indications that many if not most of the immigrant workers are undocumented.
As in California’s fruit and vegetable fields, in Wisconsin’s pastures and milking barns, enforcement of immigrations laws has been more tolerant than say, in Southern California, Texas or Mississippi – perhaps due to the political power and campaign funding of central California and Wisconsin farm organizations.
If ICE has shown little interest in law enforcement against so-called “illegal” migrants working in the dairy industry, the Departments of State and Labor have shown even less concern about protecting foreign workers from exploitation – even when the exploitation has been baked into their own guest worker programs.
In her reporting, Maria Perez has found a Labor department program through which farmworkers were hired for a season in Georgia and wound up doing year-round labor in Wisconsin under conditions a lot like slavery, and a State Department program for specially skilled college graduates that allowed dairymen to turn college-educated Mexican veterinarians into underpaid milkers and haulers.
As an advocate for migrants’ rights told Maria: “[When you expand] guest worker programs without strengthening workers’ protections you are creating a recipe for worker exploitation.”
Maria Perez has covered issues affecting immigrant and minority communities since 2013. Before joining the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she covered minority affairs for the Naples Daily News. She won a 2017 George Polk Award for her investigation into Florida companies that profited from undocumented workers and, once they were injured, reported them to prosecutors instead of paying workers compensation. The project was done while she was an O’Brien Fellow in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University. She has also reported on cosmetic surgery clinics where dozens of patients died or got injured. Most of the deaths were of Hispanic and African American women. Perez has a master’s degree from Columbia University.